My youngest son is the quintessential baby. The kind who makes your ovaries hurt just by looking at his smile—the smile that bursts through his plump cheeks that are dimpled, just like his round knees. His head is covered in ringlet curls that make me occasionally wish we had named him something like Gabriel to fit his cherub-esque appearance. He is chubby; he is friendly; he is darling. If his sleeping skills weren’t on par with that of an insomniac who had just consumed 10 cups of coffee and then went to a rave, he would be the baby that soon-to-be parents picture when they close their eyes.
He is as outgoing as he is cute. In the grocery store, he will yell, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” to every passerby, growing only louder if they ignore his first greeting. The older women, the ones who have seen their children have children, and their grandchildren as well, melt at the sight of it. “He said ‘hi’ to me!” they beam, touching my arm and placing their hand over their heart as they walk past. The men in dirty Carhartts, picking up a six pack on their way home from work, are always slower on the uptake, but never fail to return a hello, as by this point he is bouncing up and down and waving both arms in an effort to elicit a smile.
In any crowd, he has learned how to command attention through cuteness. He holds court, gathering his subjects around and bestowing kisses and high fives to any who are willing to offer him a smile. I stand nearby, a proud mama, thinking how my children are assuredly the cutest and most wonderful and knowing every parent has the same thought.
Not that these moments aren’t countered by thoughts of whether or not I have bred the worst sleepers on the face of the earth or if it is possible my children have a hidden stash of Jolt soda somewhere in the house that could account for their unstoppable energy, in addition to wondering why this is all so hard and whether or not I am doing any of it right. But these moments of perfect sweetness I wish I could concentrate and bottle and save for a time when I am the old woman in a grocery store, waving at strangers’ babies.
I might need it sooner than that. I know that my perfect boys are growing up. They will turn into teenagers with heads that smell like Axe hair gel and not the cherished newborn scent. They will no longer be innocent angels with adoring crowds. I know this because I have seen baby pictures of myself and can attest that 3-year-old me with chubby cheeks and curly hair was significantly cuter and with more fans, than 13-year-old me, who sported braces, glasses and some really unfortunate bangs.
I worry that as they grow, the world will forget the sweet babies with the darling smiles that they first were. I know this will happen, because when I look at the jerk who rolled his eyes at me in the grocery store or the cold faces staring back at me on the evening news, I do not see babies who once gave their mothers their first smile. I do not see chubby cheeks or tiny fingers that wrapped around their father’s littlest finger.
Growing up is an involuntary bite out of Eden’s apple, trading the innocence of youth for the heavy and beautiful reality of life. I might dread their growth, but I never regret it. The newborn smell is gone, but it is replaced by first steps, first words, and other amazing milestones. They are becoming who they are. They will grow into a greater existence, but one not without flaws.
Their baby years are forever etched in my own memory, and when they are gangly, surly teenagers or adults who make grievous mistakes, I wish I could implore the world to always see them as they once were. Now they are loved and appreciated so easily, but they will not always be the babies who can win favor by simply smiling and blowing kisses.
And yet their value will not change.
It has not changed for any of us.